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Larkmead’s Solari Cabernet and LMV Salon: 2001-2015
BY STEPHEN TANZER | AUGUST 29, 2019
The Larkmead estate just south of the town of Calistoga
dates back to the 19th century, but it’s safe to say that only in
the 21st century have owners Kate Solari Baker and Cam Baker truly
capitalized on the site’s disparate soil types. In fact, the 110-acre property,
a very warm valley floor site, is remarkably diverse, featuring seven different
soil profiles, and Larkmead’s six red wines—three blends and three Cabernet
Sauvignons, the latter based on single parcels or soil types—take full advantage
of this multifaceted estate.
This spring I had the opportunity to experience vertical tastings of two of Larkmead’s top bottlings, one a Cabernet Sauvignon and the other a blend. I was impressed anew with the exhaustive work that has taken place in both the vineyards and the winery over the past 20 years here. Even the two wines I focused on—the Solari Cabernet Sauvignon and the LMV Salon—have evolved dramatically since their initial vintages (2001 and 2003, respectively) and winemaker Dan Petroski continues to fine-tune these wines in search of greater complexity and longevity and more moderate alcohol levels.
The Larkmead winery
An Estate with a
Larkmead estate, located on Larkmead Lane on the south side of Calistoga, is one of Napa Valley’s largest remaining family operations, offering a wide range of soil types that are particularly suited to Bordeaux red varieties. The property was first owned as a summer retreat by army surgeon Charles Hitchcock, who had moved in 1851 from North Carolina to San Francisco with his wife Martha and daughter Lillie. Lillie, whose drinking, smoking and poker playing were unconventional for her time, was eventually sent by her parents to their country estate to calm down. She named the property Larkmead and was responsible for extensively landscaping it and planting a large vineyard; she also made it a destination for her artistic and intellectual friends in San Francisco. At the time there was actually a Larkmead Station stop on the Napa Valley Railroad, which had recently been constructed by Sam Brannan, the millionaire owner of Calistoga’s earliest hotel/resort, who needed a way to induce visitors to venture so far north of San Francisco.
Lillie Hitchcock married wealthy businessman Howard Coit in 1863 and was widowed in 1885. She went on to become one of San Francisco’s most famous historical figures and a lifelong patron of the San Francisco Fire Department after having been saved as a child from a burning building by a volunteer fire fighter, as two of her playmates burned to death. Her estate later funded the construction of Coit Tower in 1933.
From 1895 through 1942, Larkmead was owned by the Salmina family from Switzerland. Felix Salmina, who had a winemaking background, leased the old wood Larkmead winery in 1895 and purchased it in 1903. By 1906 he finished building a new winery from stone taken from the nearby hills.
Following two changes in ownership after the death of Felix Salmina in 1940, Larry and Polly Solari purchased Larkmead in 1948. At the same time, Larry Solari took a job as sales manager for Italian Swiss Colony, becoming an early pioneer in convincing Americans that wine should have a place at their dinner tables. Through his association with Larkmead and Italian Swiss Colony, Solari became a major client for the wine grapes of local growers.
The Solaris’ daughter Kate grew up in Napa Valley, becoming an accomplished artist. She and her husband Cam Baker eventually took over operation of Larkmead in 1992 and have been responsible for turning what had long been a famous vineyard and winery into a first-class wine estate. They quickly embarked on a meticulous program to completely replant the property, carefully matching varieties, clones and rootstocks to the unique characteristics of the sprawling estate’s multiple blocks and complex soil types.
The Bakers subsequently hired their famous architect friend Howard Backen to construct a modern winery, where they began vinifying their wines in 2005. Today, there are just over 110 acres under vine at Larkmead, and in 2013 the winemaking facility was totally renovated. The number of fermentation tanks was increased from 12 in the original winery to 28 in the new one, which greatly enhanced Larkmead’s ability to separately vinify multiple distinctive sites on the property.
Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc vines on the east side of the Napa River
A Large and Diverse Property
Larkmead’s acreage stretches from Highway 29 nearly all the way across the valley floor to the Silverado Trail (it actually ends at Selby Creek, less than a quarter-mile from the Trail). The property lies on both sides of the Napa River at the conjunction of two colluvial fans that extend down from the Mayacamas and Vaca mountain ranges. There are significant clay deposits through the middle of the property, on both sides of the Napa River. Unlike in many river-adjacent sites, most of the finer silt has been carried down the valley over the eons; up to 300 feet of ancient riverbed gravel lies directly beneath six to ten feet of mostly loamy soil, allowing for the kind of drainage that’s normally associated with hillside vineyards. Winemaker Dan Petroski provided a more nuanced description of Larkmead’s soil as “gravel coming down from the Mayacamas range and sand coming down from the Vaca range.” Basically, he added, “at some point the top of the Vaca mountain range fell off and essentially crushed the cobble on the valley floor.” Larkmead’s various C blocks, essentially situated between the Napa River and Selby Creek, feature heavier soils along the Napa River but also poor, shallower soils featuring a mix of clay, sand, silt and gravel where the Napa River and Selby Creek meet—the latter “very good for vines,” according to Petroski.
New owners Kate Solari Baker and Cam Baker finished most of their original replanting of the estate in 1995, but then launched a new vineyard redevelopment project in 2007, eventually replanting 90 of their 110 acres of vines. They had made some overoptimistic choices in the ‘90s by planting varieties like Syrah, Zinfandel and Viognier, which they came to believe were unsuitable to the site, and they were having problems with leaf roll virus as well. They also made changes in row direction beginning in ’07, in order to protect their fruit more effectively against the hot afternoon sun. Indeed, some vintages in the early ‘00s had suffered from vine stress due in part to severe heat spikes late in the growing season.
The new regime at Larkmead released their first red wine, a Cabernet Sauvignon, from the 1997 vintage. Paul Hobbs was the consulting winemaker then, and Andy Smith, born and raised in Scotland and an enology graduate of Lincoln University in New Zealand, was Hobbs’s assistant. Smith was hired as winemaker at Larkmead in 1999, at the same time that he took over full-time winemaking duties at DuMOL in Windsor, a winery that then specialized in making Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from top sites in Russian River Valley. Smith directed winemaking at Larkmead until 2013, at which point he left to devote his full attention to DuMOL, where he is a partner. Dan Petroski, who had begun working at Larkmead as cellarmaster and Smith’s assistant in 2007, gradually took over more of the winemaking duties as Smith became senior winemaker. Petroski was appointed head winemaker when Smith left.
Larkmead released its first Solari Reserve Cabernet in 2001, from the estate’s oldest vines, planted to Clone 7 in the ‘80s on two gravelly blocks on opposite sides of the vineyard, plus a bit of young Clone 337. In 2003, the winery introduced two Bordeaux blends, the Merlot-based Firebelle and the Cabernet-based LMV Salon. (A small high-end Cabernet Sauvignon called The Lark was introduced in 2006 from a single very low-yielding parcel on rich, cobbly soil—technically Bale loam surrounded by Cortina gravelly loam—but Petroski makes it clear that the Solari Cabernet is Larkmead’s flagship wine.)
Solari Cabernet Sauvignon vines near Highway 29
Sources for the Solari bottling have changed over the years (for example, what was originally the most important Solari block of vines, located close to Highway 29, was pulled out in 2007 at 25 years of age), as has the work in the vineyards and winery. Beginning with the 2007 release, the Solari has essentially come from a single gravelly four-acre parcel planted to Cabernet Sauvignon clones 4 and 15, located directly across Larkmead Lane from the winery. (The Solari Cabernet vines normally yield a modest 2.75 tons per acre.) The gravelly soil, ideal for Cabernet, typically produces wine with cassis fruit and floral lift, often with an element of graphite minerality. Larkmead continued to include a small percentage of Petit Verdot from sandier soil on the opposite side of the Napa River, although Petroski has not used any Petit Verdot since vintage 2013.
The parcels used to make the LMV Salon have also changed dramatically over the years since this wine was first made in 2003. From 2003 through 2007 the wine came from multiple parcels all over the property. It was typically a five-variety Bordeaux blend based on Cabernet Sauvignon through 2010 but since 2012 has been made entirely from Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. In fact, as of 2016, Petroski has entirely removed Petit Verdot and Malbec from the Larkmead program. “Now we’re a three-trick pony,” he told me, and most of the estate’s Merlot goes into its Firebelle bottling. Since 2008, the Cabernet Sauvignon component of the LMV Salon has come from a new, higher-density replanting of Clone 4 vines in the extreme northeast section of the estate, next to Selby Creek, where vine yields are fairly vigorous at up to four tons per acre owing to the youth of the vines. But the Cabernet Franc component of the wines is from vines near Selby Creek that produce just 2.2 to 2.5 tons per acre, and sometimes less; Petroski attributes the low yields to “a combination of rootstock, clone and vine health.” Partly for this reason Larkmead has grafted over some Cabernet Sauvignon vines next to the Solari parcel to Cabernet Franc for future use in the LMV Salon blend.
I should note that while Larkmead’s production has steadily risen and the estate now routinely offers six different red wines the Bakers still sell off a good portion of their fruit—about 50% of it in 2019, according to Petroski. From 1961 through 1980, the fruit was sold exclusively to Inglenook, and later on buyers included Duckhorn Vineyards, Cakebread Cellars, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars and David Ramey. More recent clients for Larkmead grapes have included Darioush, Realm Cellars, The Napa Valley Reserve and Rivers-Marie, whose Calistoga Cabernet is based on Larkmead fruit.
The heart of Larkmead's Solari Cabernet
A Calistoga Site Challenged by Heat
I asked Petroski what the single biggest challenge was in making wine at Larkmead. He answered with a single word: “Heat.” The site produces fruit with very high levels of sugar and normally high pHs: the Solari Cabernet is routinely bottled with a pH between 3.9 and 4.0, and the LMV Salon blend is just a tad lower. Alcohol levels are almost invariably between 14.5% and 14.9% for the LMV Salon but consistently in the 15s for the Solari, at least until the past few growing seasons.
Global warming has exacerbated growing-season extremes at this site. About ten years ago I interviewed Andy Smith on the effects of climate change for my old Winophilia site, and he began by stating that climate change had resulted in more extreme and more unpredictable weather conditions in Calistoga: “an enlarged frost window in spring, increasingly unpredictable flowering weather, and more frequent potentially damaging heat spikes in summer and during harvest.” He went on to say that “we have now reached the point where an isolated three-to-five-day heat spike can overwhelm the initial four or five months of the vine’s interaction with its site and largely dictate wine style for the entire season, especially if this heat comes immediately before or during harvest. This leads to wines of weather rather than wines of site, a critical difference, and it’s particularly distressing when one has a site with such distinctive natural identity, which then becomes homogenized or suppressed by these events.”
In Smith’s later years at Larkmead and especially since Petroski took over, work in the vineyards and winery has been focused on alleviating the worst effects of heat. Among other measures, the estate began using green shade cloth in 2011 to provide the grapes with a measure of protection from the sun. Petroski also told me that Larkmead has cut total irrigation of its vineyards in half, through more precise additions—i.e., adding more water when it’s most needed but watering much less frequently. According to Smith, whom I spoke to recently for this article, this step has enabled the estate to get riper fruit at somewhat lower sugar levels since 2006.
During his last years at Larkmead, Smith was harvesting earlier and Petroski has continued this process in an attempt to reduce alcohol levels in the wines. (The Solari Cabernet in particular has ranged between 15% and 15.7% alcohol in most vintages, but has been a bit lower—between 14.2% and 15.3%--since 2013.) Picking earlier at lower Brix levels—around 24 degrees Brix since 2017, but a bit higher for the earlier-ripening Merlot—has also enabled Petroski to avoid getting “dead fruit.” Said Petroski: “We’re harvesting now when the grapes are at their highest energy level—before the skins and seeds start to break down. We’re no longer getting raisins and nowadays we barely have to sort the fruit.” Of course, Petroski added, picking high-energy grapes means picking “at peak tannins,” before the skins break down and make softer wines, so this strategy brings with it its own set of challenges to tame the potentially more rustic tannins.
Winemaker Dan Petroski in Larkmead's barrel cellar
Evolving Winemaking Techniques
My tasting made it clear that some of the wines from the early years (i.e., prior to 2005), though very rich, dark and glossy in the early going, did not possess the verve of more recent vintages. They were actually considerably lower in total polyphenols and tannins than today’s vintages, and the vertical tasting revealed more evidence of irregular ripening, including obvious hints of dehydrated fruit (and warm, liqueur-like fruit character, if not incipient oxidation) as well as some distinct green notes that now seem more intrusive than those of more recent vintages. Smith told me that in the early years the vines suffered mightily from stress, which extended the period between bloom and harvest. “Back then the vines were limping to the finish line at the end,” he said. Nowadays the vineyards benefit from steadier photosynthesis, and the typical time between flowering and harvest has been cut from as much as 130 days to around 113.
It’s worth noting that until Larkmead opened its new winery in time to vinify the 2005 harvest, the wines suffered from “winery stress” as well: Larkmead made its wines at Napa Wine Company through the 2004 vintage and had no choice but to do much quicker "flash fermentations" back then, according to Petroski. Nowadays the cuvaison for these wines lasts about three weeks. But the wines have been consistently better since 2005 and have been elevated to an even higher level starting in 2009.
Petroski ferments his wines in stainless steel tanks, giving them an initial cold soak lasting five to eight days (shorter if he chooses to inoculate the musts and longer if he vinifies with native yeasts). Once there’s a presence of yeasts, he micro-oxygenates the wines, without aeration, by doing two to four automated pumpovers per day, “mostly to normalize temperature,” during the active part of the fermentation, which typically lasts around ten days. When the fermentation reaches its peak, Petroski cools the tanks to 85 degrees F.; back in 2006, he told me, fermentation temperatures typically rose to 88 to 90. Petroski normally limits any post-fermentation maceration to just two or three days, explaining, “that’s enough; we’re a tannic, structured site.” Interestingly, Petroski described Smith’s early vintages as “more about polish and easy drinkability,” at least compared to his own recent wines, which he finds to be “more rugged, and often tougher for tasters in early blind tastings.”
A sufficiency of Larkmead
While Smith aged his first vintages of the Solari Reserve and LMV Salon in 100% new oak, he rapidly reduced that percentage to about 75%, where it remains today. The Solari Cabernet was initially aged in a higher percentage of Demptos barrels, but Petroski has moved to mostly Darnajou since 2012, which he believes brings out a hint of herbaceousness in the wine that contributes freshness. The LMV, on the other hand, began in mostly Darnajou but Petroski switched to mostly Demptos since 2012, “to bring out the wine’s fruit sweetness.” Prior to 2012, both wines were aged in medium-plus or even heavy-toast barrels, but Petroski now uses medium toast to lessen the impact of the wood.
Both the Solari and the LMV Salon have always been bottled after 18 to 20 months in barrel, in late spring or early summer. The bottling is done with a light filtration (“We have hard water up here so the wines are turbid,” noted Petroski), but only the 2006 vintage was fined (“We were all shocked at its tannins”). Through the years, the winemakers have been willing to add water to facilitate the fermentations as well as to acidify lightly in the ripest years as needed, but Petroski told me he discontinued water additions and acidification as of vintage 2014, as the recent work in the vineyards and the selection of harvest dates have brought lower potential alcohol levels and better-balanced fruit.
Tannin levels in recent vintages have been higher than ever, but then the red wines from this site rely more on their tannins than on their acidity for structure. In fact, Petroski noted that the site’s ability to produce wines with pHs up to 4.0 that still maintain freshness is largely a function of the strong tannins, and of course of the site’s mix of soils. Petroski noted that he stopped adding press wine to his top cuvées after 2011 (in fairness, Smith rarely used press wine for the Solari or LMV Salon) as he thought that this was diluting the tannic structure of his wines. “Now they are more robust,” he claimed. Indeed, today’s wines are better than ever, and the Solari and LMV Salon bottlings look capable of evolving in bottle for 20 to 25 years.
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